When Things Go Wrong
YOU KNOW HOW SOME PEOPLE ARE UTTERLY PROFICIENT liars? People who can cheat at board games and still look the picture of innocence; people who can tell you that their parents are spies, or space explorers, or criminal masterminds and you believe every mind-boggling detail; people who can convince you that the word derrière is French for hungry, and have you spend an entire school trip to Paris telling bemused café owners that you are bum; people who never blush, who never look shifty, or stammer nervously, dry-mouthed, as they evade the truth? People who can lie as easily as they breathe, and you are never any the wiser?
Well, Grey Arthur isn’t one of those people.
“Well, erm, it’s not really that big a problem,” he’d said awkwardly, eyes on the floor, tugging one of his wonky ears with his pale grey hand. Tom Golden looked at his fidgeting, evasive, twitchy ghost friend, and he slumped down on his bed with a sigh.
“This is so not good, is it?” Tom whined, before taking a deep breath and nodding. “Okay. Come on, break it to me. How big is not really that big?”
“Bigger than a small problem, I’ll admit.”
“I mean, it’s not like huge, not like Godzilla-size.”
“I just don’t want you to panic or freak out or anything. I just thought you should know, that’s all. It’s fine. Maybe.”
“Arthur! How big a problem is this?”
Arthur looked up at Tom and bit his lip while he contemplated the scale. “Elephant?” he volunteered gingerly. “At worst. At best, more panda-size. Or a large dog. Or a small cow.”
“You’re going to have to start making some sense soon, Arthur.”
“Okay,” replied Arthur, beginning to pace. It was never a good sign when he began to pace. “You know how everyone is settling in as Invisible Friends, and we all agree that it’s going very well, and everyone is happy, and that it was a good idea. Remember how we all agreed that it was a good idea? I mean, I specifically remember you saying that you thought it was a—”
“Arthur!” howled Tom. “This is killing me. Can you just get to the point?”
Arthur scowled, obviously not relishing having to say what he was about to say.
“Monty’s human kind of worked out that he exists,” he said, the words spilling out as quickly as possible before he could think better of it. Tom’s eyes grew impossibly wide and his mouth dropped open. “Now, although it sounds bad, it’s not as bad as it could be,” Grey Arthur added hastily. “The good news is she doesn’t entirely believe. She still thinks it’s something to do with magnetic faults and geometric something or others, or latent psychic powers or whatever all that means.”
Arthur grinned at Tom, that “Aren’t humans odd?” grin that he used quite frequently, but when Tom remained looking serious, Arthur let the smile drop and licked his lips anxiously.
“Okay, fair enough, you’re still not happy about it,” continued Grey Arthur, before breaking off, an optimistic smile creeping back onto his ghostly face. “But I have something to tell you that will cheer you up. You know, every cloud has a silver lining, that kind of thing.”
Tom wasn’t quite sure what Arthur could tell him that would cheer him up after that bombshell, so instead of sharing Arthur’s excitement, he waited uneasily to hear what was coming next. Grey Arthur’s smile broadened as he indulged in a dramatic pause. He noticed Tom’s frown deepening, so he sighed and went straight for the grand announcement.
“She’s called in Exceedingly Haunted Homes to investigate.”
Arthur even punctuated the statement by waving his hands about, jazz style, while looking almost insanely cheerful.
It’s possible Tom made a noise in response, but if he did, it was so high-pitched that only dogs and bats could hear it. If this was Grey Arthur’s way of cheering him up, he hated to hear what he would do if he ever wanted to make him worried. Grey Arthur’s jazz hands stopped waggling when he realized Tom wasn’t sharing his enthusiasm, and he slowly placed them in the pockets of his waistcoat while he waited for Tom to say something.
It was quite a long wait.
Tom stared blankly at Arthur, his mouth moving silently, shaking his head.
“What’s the matter, Tom? Why aren’t you smiling? Or blinking? Why aren’t you blinking, Tom? Tom? Tom? Do you want me to get you a cup of tea? Isn’t that what we’re meant to do in these situations? Or get someone to slap you? I mean, I can’t, because of the whole ghost thing, but I could hit you with something, like a book, if that would help?” asked Arthur anxiously, when it became clear that Tom couldn’t work out how to respond. Tom batted away that suggestion with a flick of the hand, and instead sat up straight, loosened his school tie, and looked at Grey Arthur, his forehead a mess of frown lines.
“You need to tell me,” he said, his voice deliberately calm, “from the beginning, exactly what has happened.”
© 2007 Louise Arnold
In Good Spirits
TIME HAD HURTLED ON RELENTLESSLY FROM THE MOMENT Grey Arthur had established his very own Ghost School, and the colors of England dutifully changed to fit in. Bright oranges, rich reds, and pale yellows seeped into the leaves on the trees, a final shout of defiance against the monochrome winter that lay ahead, and then chilling winds came that stripped everything back down to bare branches. The blue of the sky faded reluctantly to a washy grey. White frost decorated the grass, made clothes left on the line rigid with cold, and encased cars, triggering the merry morning ritual of hot water and deicer. Time crept on, dragging even lower temperatures with it. Hats and scarves appeared out of hiding, and shorts and skirts were consigned to the back of wardrobes throughout the land. It wasn’t long before Christmas burst on to the scene in an explosion of tinsel, flashing lights, and jolly men wearing fake beards.
For every change that affected the weather, several more affected the lives that shivered and sheltered from it. A tidal wave of ghosts had been unleashed upon the land following the defeat of the Collector, and there wasn’t a home in England that didn’t feel the effect. Fresh hauntings sprang up across the land. The Laundry Run was undertaken by Poltergeists in previously unseen numbers, causing socks to be The Number One Most Requested Item on Christmas lists across the country. Castles were riddled with Screamers, Chain Rattlers, Headless ghosts, and Thespers, thrilling and terrifying unwitting tourists, tourists who came back again, and again, and again, desperate to soak up the spooky atmosphere. Sadness Summoners filled the empty seats in cinemas when weepy films were being shown, and not a soul left the building dry-eyed. It had been more years than any ghost could count since England had been this haunted, and the ghosts who had made all these changes possible worked hard to adjust to their new lives as Invisible Friends.
Mildred Rattledust moved in with Holly Mayer, Tike with Frank Longfield, and Monty, the legendary Montague Equador Scullion the Third, keen to put his own dramatic twist on the role, moved in with Mrs. Wilson, the latest in a long line of substitute teachers for Science. The Harrowing Screamer wasn’t quite ready to be unleashed on his very own human yet, so he remained a guest of the Golden household, living in the shed. He didn’t seem to mind though. “Harry,” as Tike had taken to calling him, pottered around with the compost, the spiders, and the stored-away barbecue, and late at night you could see him doing very strange things in the garden indeed. Tom thought it best not to ask. Screamers aren’t very forthcoming with answers.
So that was how it was. Tom’s first ever haunted Christmas, full of laughter and turkey, crackers and party hats, advent calendars and visits from relatives who insisted on being kissed good-bye.
The festivities disappeared, and the new school term loomed ever closer on the horizon. With Christmas out of the way, strange things happen. Snow stops being beautiful and exciting, and starts being cold, seeping into your shoes, making your socks damp and your toes numb. The Norwegian spruce in the corner of the lounge stops being green and harboring presents, and starts looking sad, shedding pines and turning brown. December, the month of presents and time off school, turns into January, the time of having to go back to lessons and getting smacked in the face with a “snowball” that is mostly ice and dirt. The final thing to break the festive mood entirely, though, was the revelation that the old cricket field in Thorbleton was being turned into a theme park, and every morning at six a.m. trucks would rumble past the house. Mum and Dad, who only mere days ago had been eating mince pies and telling jokes about reindeer, now spent their time writing angry letters to newspapers and standing at the window, twitching the curtains and tutting.
The Season To Be Jolly was officially over.
The first day back at school was very much like every other first day back at school—a mixture of missed gossip, renewing dusty friendships, admiring new pencil cases, and bemoaning the end of the holidays. However, some time after the final bell had gone, things took an altogether different path. …
© 2007 Louise Arnold
In Short Supply
AS BLEAK WINTER DAYS GO, IT WAS ONE OF THE BLEAKEST. Ice etched ornate patterns on the outside of the Science room windows, and the view of the sky outside was every bit as grey as the concrete school it hung above. White flecks of snow swirled on the wind and gathered in miniature drifts on the windowsill. Mrs. Wilson, hunched behind her desk, shivered, and the breath she blew on her hands to warm them was visible like smoke. Everyone else was long gone, back to their heated homes, their welcoming lounges, the beckoning soaps on telly, but she’d stayed on, weighed down by paperwork, marking, lesson plans, and a sense of foreboding at the massive task that lay ahead.
When she’d accepted the job as a substitute Science teacher here, nobody had warned her what it would be like. Nobody had mentioned the long string of substitute teachers that had gone before her, substitute teachers who had fled after one or, at most, two lessons. Nobody had mentioned tales of sulphuric acid being poured into bags, of fights in class that would rival those seen in Wild West saloons, of toxic potions mixed in the sinks, of Bunsen burners used as flamethrowers, or of entire classes with shorter attention spans than hyperactive kittens.
And certainly nobody had mentioned that as soon as it got cold enough for the heating to be really needed, that is the exact time, without fail, it breaks down.
Mrs. Wilson shivered again and wrapped her scarf once more around her neck for extra insulation. Still, she thought to herself, she was here now, and the last thing Thorbleton Secondary School needed was another teacher running away.
She’d tried her hardest to make the Science room feel like home, but it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. A CD player on the floor by her feet played soothing whale songs, and among the posters of periodic tables and advice on “What to Do if a Pupil Accidentally Ingests a Toxic Chemical,” she had hung a picture of Stonehenge with the sun setting behind it, and a photo of a grumpy-looking cat sitting in a bubble bath. An incense stick that smelled of hippie shops and ladies who wear tie-dye dresses was burning on the desk (carefully placed away from anything that might explode if it met a naked flame). The wispy smoke almost drove away the smell of cleaning fluids, acids, and alkalines.
Mrs. Wilson sipped slowly at her chamomile tea, hands wrapped tightly around the mug to steal its warmth, and tapped her feet to force some feeling back to her toes. Her nose was numb and it stood out, a beacon of red stranded between a woolly hat and a woolly scarf. She sniffed and carried on studying today’s test papers.
It was meant to have been a simple quiz, just to give her an idea of where the class was up to, what they had learned so far. It made for difficult reading. Some of the highlights so far included:
Q) Name an acid.
A) The one in the big jar.
Q) If lemons are acidic, then milk is …
Q) Batteries generate …
A) Chicken eggs.
She sighed—feeling a little bit overwhelmed, a little bit lost, and a lot cold—and placed her chamomile tea down as she struggled to adjust her scarf for the umpteenth time. She left the mug perilously close to the edge of the desk, distracted by what she was doing, and it hung there, teetering, threatening to spill on the CD player below.
Finally satisfied that she was as warm as she could be, given the circumstances, Mrs. Wilson reached out to reclaim her tea. Only, the cup wasn’t where she had left it. It was nestled, safely out of harm’s way, in the middle of the desk. She frowned, confused, and for the longest time she just stared at her tea, trying to work out if she was going slowly crazy. She ran through the process in her mind, remembering what hand she had used to place the cup down, picturing where she left it, and she laughed quietly at the absurdity of it all. She had to have been imagining it.
Scientific curiosity got the better of her though, and once again she moved the mug to the edge of the desk and concentrated on her scarf. She glanced up, and sure enough, the mug had been moved to the center of the desk. She shook her head and frowned again.
Montague Equador Scullion the Third, ex-Thesper, now Invisible Friend, looked on and nodded happily to himself. Ever since witnessing firsthand the trials and tribulations substitute teachers go through, he had decided that his calling was to adopt one himself. It struck him that in a school like Thorbleton, the teachers needed help every bit as much as some of the pupils. Still, this teacher seemed to need it even more than most. For the third time, she placed her mug on the edge of the desk, and for the third time, Montague moved it to somewhere safe.
“All in a day’s haunting,” he said to himself with a smile, while twisting his mustache into dramatic little points. He took a bow to an audience that wasn’t there, a force of habit, and gave himself a polite round of applause. He was really getting used to this Invisible Friend lark.
Mrs. Wilson began rummaging in her multicolored, patchwork bag, and she brought out a well-thumbed copy of Mysteries of This World. The magazine was tatty and covered in tea rings, with some pages torn already from overexuberant reading. The front cover showed a rather plump man wearing a hat made from silver foil, with the caption ARE ALIENS MAKING YOU FAT? She threw the magazine open and began thumbing through, past out-of-focus pictures of graveyards, past quizzes that asked “Could You Be Psychic?”, past an article about a dog from Aberdeen that had started barking a woof that sounds strangely like the word Armageddon, or perhaps, Army head on, or maybe, conceded the article, I like bacon … On and on Mrs. Wilson went, thumbing through the pages at top speed. She stopped abruptly, tapping a section in the adverts, nodding to herself. Grabbing the phone off her desk with cold, clumsy fingers, she began to dial. Montague watched, intrigued.
“Hello?” she said, her voice racing with excitement. “Is this Exceedingly Haunted Homes of England? … Oh, good, good. I have something that might interest you….”
Montague looked on, a nervous grimace on his ghostly face, and for once, he was lost for words.
© 2007 Louise Arnold
Breaking the News
“SURELY HE MUST HAVE REALIZED SOMETHING WAS wrong when he had to move the cup for the third time?” howled Tom as he paced his bedroom.
“Oh, don’t be too hard on him, Tom. He thought he was being helpful,” explained Arthur. “To be fair, we’re all quite new to being Invisible Friends, so mistakes will happen.”
Tom stopped pacing and leaned against the wall, looking concerned. It was perhaps unfortunate that he had chosen to rest right in front of his wall of memories, where souvenirs, postcards, mementos, and assorted nostalgia gathered, because his serious expression was a little undermined by the picture right next to his ear of him on the potty as a toddler.
“There’s a bit of a difference between a mistake and calling in professional ghost hunters to film it all on national television, Arthur!” Tom complained. “Oh, this is a nightmare.”
Grey Arthur frowned. “I know it’s not ideal, but nobody expected their human to try and catch them out, Tom. He told me straightaway, and I told you, and now we just need to work out how to make sure it doesn’t happen again, that’s all. It’s a problem, yes, as problems go it’s a pretty big one, but hopefully we caught it in time.”
“Caught it in time?” repeated Tom incredulously. He was so wound up that his hands began flapping wildly as he talked. “It doesn’t sound at all like you caught it in time! How can you be so calm, Arthur? Aren’t you at all worried about the TV crews? And the psychic? What if they spot you? What if they manage to get rid of you, you know, do some weird hocus-pocus that they do, and then you all vanish and I’m left on my own?”
Grey Arthur’s mouth dropped open, a look of realization on his face. “Oh! So that’s what you’re worried about?”
“Of course that’s what I’m worried about. What did you think?”
“Well, I thought it was because Monty might have to stop being an Invisible Friend since the whole idea was to help Mrs. Wilson, not to convince her she was being haunted. It means we might have to rethink the way we look after our humans.” Grey Arthur ruffled his already ruffled grey hair, a bemused smile twitching on his lips. “But you’re just worried over some makebelieve psychic? Talk about worrying over nothing.”
Tom shook his head. “What? No! It’s not over nothing at all, Arthur. Monty won’t have to stop being her friend, he’ll just have to be a little more discreet, that’s all. Obviously, it’s not ideal but it’s not the end of the world. What would be bad is you guys being chased all over the school by a group of ghost hunters. You know what happened with Dr. Brown. The last thing in the world we need is a repeat of that, or worse.”
“Pfft!” said Arthur dismissively. “Nothing to worry about. It’s a load of old codswallop. As long as Monty isn’t moving cups around in front of them they won’t have a clue he’s there. It’s fake, Tom—All Begone, foul spirit this and sense of foreboding that.”
“Arthur,” interrupted Tom. “That psychic guy isn’t on the show anymore. They’ve got a new woman. How can you not know this? It’s been in all the papers.”
“Not The Daily Tell-Tale.”
“Well, okay, all the papers apart from the ghost one. They’ve got this new psychic, and she’s meant to be really good, Arthur. Like, scarily good. And now, thanks to Monty”—Tom threw his hands up in the air dramatically—“she’s going to be coming to our school!”
“You’re so gullible, Tom.” Grey Arthur chuckled as he plonked himself down on the bed.
“I’m not gullible,” protested Tom. “It’s true! It was in the papers.”
“You are gullible. It’s not a bad thing, I’m just saying. You’re the only human who can see ghosts. Everyone knows that. So, if they say this woman can see ghosts, they’re lying. Or pretending. Or both.” He looked at Tom thoughtfully. “I thought you’d be more excited about this, Tom. I actually think it’s quite cool that Exceedingly Haunted Homes might be coming to school.” Grey Arthur leaned over to one side on the bed, twisting so he could catch his reflection in the mirror on the wall, and began practicing his scary face (it was no surprise that he never made it as a Screamer, as his scary face was actually rather cute, like an angry kitten, or a fierce puppy, which was completely not the point). He snarled into the mirror, and then grinned at Tom. “I’ve always wanted to be on the telly.” Tom watched as his ghostly friend continued enthusiastically “haunting” in the mirror, and groaned.
“No, no, no, Arthur. You can’t. I don’t care what you say, I still think it’s too dangerous. Besides, you’ve already been on the telly once, remember?”
“That doesn’t count. That was to help you out, and I didn’t even look the right way. This will be my chance to do it properly. Our chance. All of us Invisible Friends on the telly together. Come on, you have to admit that would be pretty good fun to see.”
“Arthur, listen, I don’t want to argue with you and I’m not trying to ruin your fun, it’s just something about this … It feels… dodgy… to me.” Tom wished he could explain why, but there was just some odd, gnawing sensation at the back of his mind that wouldn’t go away, like the feeling you get when you look down a dark alleyway you’re contemplating taking a shortcut down, or the sensation you get when you stumble across an old improvised swing made from fraying rope. That little voice at the back of your head that quietly but firmly says NO. Tom looked at Arthur’s disappointed face and sighed. “Look, if there was some way I could find out for sure that this woman definitely can’t see ghosts, then I’d be more than happy for you all to go along, throw ectoplasm about, do whatever it is you want to do, but—”
Tom had a very good “but” lined up. It was convincing, mature, well-reasoned, and would have stopped Grey Arthur’s whining dead in the water.
At least, it would have done if he had been given a chance to say it.
Which he wasn’t.
There was a knock, and everything simply froze, eyes turning to the door, sentences stopping midflow. It wasn’t Mum’s knock, and it wasn’t Dad’s.
“Tom, I’m going to go and tell everyone the good news,” whispered Grey Arthur, flashing him a very delighted thumbs-up. “We can sort out your plan to check out the psychic lady later. See you in a bit.” And with that, he was gone.
The mystery knock came again.
Tom sighed and then leaped onto the bed, grabbed a book, and threw it open at a random page, trying very hard to look like a normal, average, book-reading boy who hadn’t just been conversing with a ghost. A stubborn, excitable ghost who had refused to listen to what was being said, and just heard what he wanted to hear. Tom sighed again, just for effect, before turning his attention back to the mystery knock.
“Come in,” he called.
© 2007 Louise Arnold